This is the first in a series of articles in which we’ll learn how to make some tools out of bamboo, including chopsticks, tent stakes, a pot, toothpicks, a spatula, and even a knife. To learn a few basics of working with bamboo we’ll start with an easy project — making chopsticks.
Bamboo is not just for prepping. You’ll find many uses for this valuable resource even if you never live to see doomsday. It is light, strong, versatile, and easy to work. It provides shade, shelter for man and wildlife, tools, and even food. It grows rapidly and is an easily renewable resource. I use it to make trellises in the garden, as a framework for rudimentary shelters, as a fishing pole; I’ve even used it as temporary poles to string lights for an outdoor party. Friends and neighbors often ask to cut a few poles for some project or another.
There are two basic types of bamboo; running and clumping. Running bamboo is the kind everyone is afraid of because it is highly invasive, and its underground runners are destructive. I started the grove you see in the video ten years ago with eight original stalks. Since then I have cut down hundreds of stalks, most of them in the last three years, and mostly just to keep it back from the driveway. It sends out underground runners that destroy the asphalt — at some point I’m going to have to pour concrete in that part of the driveway.
Unfortunately, in my climate (USDA zone 6), only the running varieties are both cold hardy and big enough for my purposes. As far as I know, Fargesia is the only clumping species that is cold hardy, but it only grows about 10 feet tall and 0.5 inches in diameter in my area. The clumping varieties that grow as big as mine are all tropical.
There are some great advantages to the running varieties — they make open groves, and spread quickly if you need to create a screen. Because the stalks are spaced farther apart, they are easier to harvest and provide better possibilities for shelter.
Edible Bamboo Shoots
Harvest the shoots just after they break through the ground. Dig them out all the way down to the runner. Depending on the variety, you might only have a day or two, and then the shoot becomes too fibrous. You can eat them raw or cooked.
Working With Bamboo
Making something out of bamboo isn’t rocket science, but it pays to know a few things.
- Use last year’s stalks. Older stalks are stronger and harder. In my grove I have three varieties of Phyllostachys, all of which are hairy in the first year of growth. These are very short, almost invisible hairs that feel somewhat velvety. Last year’s stalks might still have hairs, but they brush off easily with a swipe of the hand.
- Use a saw. A hand saw is the best way to cut down the bamboo without splitting it.
- If battoning, angle downward. If you don’t have a saw and must cut down a stalk with a knife, don’t try to cut straight through the stalk; it will just crush the culm without cutting through. Instead, angle the knife downward. The part of the stalk below the cut will split, but the part above the cut will remain intact.
- Blunt the edges. When you split off a piece of the bamboo stalk, it will have very sharp edges that must be dulled before you can safely handle them. This is done simply by scraping the edge with your knife.
- Remove the pith. The outer sheath is hard, but the inner pith is soft. If you need to work the woody part of the culm into a tool, sometimes you’ll need to remove the inner pith. You can either scrape it away or split it away. Before making the chopsticks in the video, I split out a section about one quarter of the thickness of the culm, leaving only the wood and the outer sheath.